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Tough economy makes things difficult for IndyCar drivers Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon, others

Sebastien Bourdais, a former St. Petersburg resident, signs this week to run a partial schedule with Dale Coyne Racing.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Sebastien Bourdais, a former St. Petersburg resident, signs this week to run a partial schedule with Dale Coyne Racing.

ST. PETERSBURG — Champion­ships don't carry quite the currency in IndyCar that they once did.

Or at least don't guarantee as much currency.

Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan and Sebastien Bourdais know this all too well.

Wheldon, the 2005 IndyCar series and Indianapolis 500 champion and a St. Petersburg resident, isn't running the full season in the series this year. He said Friday that he will run at Indy with Bryan Herta Autosport.

Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar series champion, lost two rides in a matter of months because of sponsorship issues and just signed this week to run the season with KV Racing. The team is co-owned by friend and former Champ Car rival Jimmy Vasser.

Bourdais won the final four Champ Car titles, in 2004-07, before that series merged with IndyCar. He signed this week to run a partial schedule with Dale Coyne; Bourdais will run the street and road courses only.

In addition to his other feats in 2005, Wheldon won the inaugural IndyCar race in St. Petersburg, leading a 1-2-3-4 finish for the Andretti Green team (with longtime friend Herta fourth) in his adopted hometown.

"When you're out of it, it's amazing how much you want to be back in," Wheldon said Friday of his offseason search for a ride. "It's been a bit of a roller coaster, but I think it's very positive for me to be in this situation. … I think it will give me a very good chance to win at Indianapolis, which is a special race for me.

"The economy's incredibly tough. We had some opportunities in November that we declined. Sometimes you think back and you're like, 'Maybe I should have said yes to that.' "

But Wheldon said he enjoyed extra offseason time with his family (his second son was born last week) and wasn't going through the difficulties alone.

"We all support each other through Twitter," Wheldon said of fellow drivers who sought jobs such as Kanaan, another former teammate. " … It's tough. There's no point in letting yourself get down about it."

Kanaan lost his longtime ride at Andretti Autosport after eight seasons then agreed to drive for De Ferran Dragon. But that deal fell apart, and the 36-year-old Brazilian was left to scramble. His search ended Monday when his deal with KV was announced.

"I feel like my first day in school," Kanaan said Friday of his team, where he was still learning names.

The learning curve in the offseason, in pursuit of sponsor dollars, was much longer. Kanaan said he had 89 meetings in three months.

"People had offseasons. I didn't," he said. "I was working really hard. … I came out stronger after everything.

"I think it's the reality of the world right now," Kanaan said, adding that on this weekend's 25-car grid, "everybody's really good. But then there is somebody that is as good as you, but he has half a million dollars. He's better than you already. I think if you go around and you ask (teams) if they could have Paul Tracy or Dan Wheldon or Tony Kanaan, they would take it. But if they don't have the funding to run, (teams have) got to survive as well."

Kanaan and Vasser say the ability to sell oneself is as important for young drivers to learn as on-track skills.

"Some of the older drivers haven't been accustomed to finding sponsorship," said Vasser, the 1996 CART champion. "The younger guys bring their sponsor packages along with them. … The older guys like P.T. or Tony are just now realizing, 'Hey, if this is going to happen for me, I need to be doing this, too.' It's just a sign of the times."

Bourdais, a former St. Petersburg resident, still hasn't sold his house ("I wish," he says, "but '07 wasn't the best time") and is renting it.

But until this week, he hadn't been back since leaving America for a disappointing year and a half in Formula One. The 32-year-old Frenchman still has racing commitments in Europe, which is why he's running a partial season.

"It's very difficult right now; the reason I'm not at Newman/Haas right now is because they can't afford it," Bourdais said. "Everybody's struggling to find money. … The only one who could offer a deal and was excited about it was Dale."

Bourdais admits life at Coyne will be different from his Champ Car days, when he won 31 times in five seasons.

"I know it's going to be the exact opposite of what I did at Newman/Haas because (there I had) a championship-winning car, and I made good use of it," he said. "Here I know you've got to build everything from scratch."

Still, he says he has a chance in IndyCar, more than F1.

"(In F1) they need drivers who can adapt to whatever the car is like, and that's just not me. I need a car to fit my driving style. And that's what we're going to try to do. … That's why I'm excited to do this."

That's something he shares with Wheldon and Kanaan. And as it turned out, Kanaan's tenacious driving style translated off the track in the offseason.

"I'm not the kind of guy that would give up that easy," said Kanaan, who had overtures from teams in other series. "My priority was IndyCar. And if I had to sit out for a year because I was going to pursue only IndyCar, I was ready to do that. I was fully committed to IndyCar. And that's why I'm here."

Tough economy makes things difficult for IndyCar drivers Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon, others 03/25/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 26, 2011 12:26am]

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